Last updated on 28.07.2020
In East Asian lies Japan, a small country roughly the size of California, known for its rich history and culture. Japan’s culture is often highlighted in films about samurais, ninjas, the Yakuza, and mostly known for Hello Kitty. Due to its preservation of the nation and monumental buildings, Japan has become a very popular tourist destination. Iconic in a variety of different foods, their presentation of food can be described as almost artisanal.
Much of Japan’s foods, such as; sushi, ramen, miso soup, and desserts are laid out in a precise order. This paper will cover a brief explanation of Japan’s socio-economic factors, Japanese culture with foods, some celebrations/holidays, and their history, as well as, acculturation to United States.
Country Demographics (Socio Economic Characteristics)
As stated previously, Japan is full of culture and tradition. Surprisingly for a small country, Japan is one of the most heavily populated countries ranked eleventh in the world (CIA, 2019). In 2011, Japan’s population was estimated to have roughly 126 million people and due to the restrictive immigration policy, the demographics in Japan is predominantly 98% Japanese. The remaining 2% is broken down in the following: about 1% is comprised of Chinese and Koreans, the remaining 1% is a mixture of Filipino, Vietnamese, and Brazilian immigrants. The majority of the immigrants in Japan live in the major cities such as Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka, mostly those of Chinese and Korean descent.
Language in Japan is primarily Japanese with dialects that can be distinguished by two main areas, eastern and western dialects. The western dialect or Kansai-type dialect is often considered the prestige dialect, while the eastern or Tokyo-type is the simpler language. The distinction between the two are divided by grammar and pitch accent. English is taught at the standardized school level to introduce different cultures and nations to the Japanese youth.
Economically, Japan is a highly developed first world country and ranks third in Global Domestic Product. Due to the country’s leading technologies and efficiency, it is one of the foremost automobile manufacturers in the world. Other major business industries for Japan are consumer electronics, manufacturing and service industry. They are also considered as the leader in innovation, holding the most global patents in electronics.
There are two main religions practiced in Japan, Shinto and Buddhism. Shinto took form in Japan’s pre-historic period and translates to “way of the spirits or deities”. According to Watt (2013) , “Shinto deities or kami were seen as permeating the natural world. Uniquely shaped or awe-inspiring trees, mountains, rivers, and rocks, all could be considered kami, but human beings could also be viewed as kami”. This indicates that followers of Shinto are very spiritual and value the connection with their environmental and physical surroundings. Buddhism, which originated in India, was an imported religion to Japan that gained popularity during the Heian period. Majority of people in Japan practice, Shinto, Buddhism, or both religions.
With a low percentage of immigrants in Japan, much of the culture and traditions have not drastically changed compared to countries with high immigrant populations like the United States. As over 20% of Japan’s population is at least 65 years old, there is an expected decrease of population to come in the next years, and soon the country will need to have less restrictions on their immigration policy. In 2018, Japan passed a new immigration bill to allow more foreign workers which will help with the aging population crisis as well as their economy. Economically, Japan needs more immigration as fertility rates continue to decrease with fewer taxpayers. With looser restriction on immigration, Japan hopes to combat their declining population and aging workforce.
Oshogatsu (New Year’s)
There are about three thousand festivals and celebrations in Japan and New Year’s or Oshogatsu is one of the most important holidays in Japan. Unlike the New Year’s celebration in the United States, the Japanese New Year’s is very traditional as it is directly tied into religion since most Japanese are Buddhists or Shinto’s.
It is believed that the ancestral deity called Toshigami, worshipped by the Shinto religion, will visit the homes of believers on New Year’s Day. If Toshigami is pleased with the preparations of cleaning and decorating a household has done for the New Year’s, he will bring luck and fortune for everyone. Therefore, the Japanese started Osoji or New Year’s Cleaning in late December to symbolize cleaning not only the house, but also the mind and soul out of respect for the deity and other deities (Knox, 2018).
After the Osoji cleaning, the Japanese will send Nengajo, New Year’s greeting postcards, with good wishes for the New Year’s. This practice can be traced back to the Heian period where nobility would send the greetings to let people know they are well. Furthermore, the Japanese decorated their front door and entrances with Oshogatsu Kazari which made of bamboo, pine, and straw. The Japanese also Kadomatsu as another decoration piece, made with cut bamboo and pine twigs and is displayed at the entrances. These New Year’s decorations are to welcome the New Year’s God(Toshigami).
Mochi, Japanese rice cakes, is an essential part of the holiday. These rice cakes are made of a type a short-grain japonica glutinous rice called Mochigome. On every year for New Year’s, the Japanese displayed many Kagami Mochi around their homes. Kagami Mochi is a two-tier round mochi with a Daidai, a type of Japanese orange that also means generations, and decorative ornaments, around the house to welcome the deity, Toshamagi. The stacking of two mochis has high importance to the Japanese, as the bottom mochi represents the passing year and the top mochi represents the coming year. It can also represent the balance of yin and yang. Kagami Mochi has symbolized the arrival of prosperity for generations. On January 11th, it is tradition to break open the rice cakes in a ritual known as Kagami Biraki (break) in order to bring good health and good fortune for the New Year (McGowan, 2019b). It is not customary to slice through the mochi as the action of such leads to the ominous connotation of cutting.
During the Heian period (794-1185), Osechi Ryori was used in a ritual offering to Gods at the beginning of the year and eaten by members of royalty (Jordan, 2017). Since the Edo period (1603-1868), it has become a tradition for the Japanese to share special meals, or Osechi Ryori, with their families since it is forbidden to cook during the first three days of the year. Osechi Ryori is a variety of colorful dishes served inside stackable lacquered boxes. The food inside vary by region but can range from sweets to pickled vegetables and prepared proteins, with each dish having distinct tastes and special symbolic meanings.
According to Fieldhouse (2017), the Japanese believed that Kuromame (sweet black beans) will bring good health for the following year. They also associated Ebi (prawns) with longevity because of the long antennae and spine of the animal, as well as, Kuri Kinton (mashed sweet potato and chestnut) is thought to bring financial success. Osechi Ryori is an extensive, methodical process and can take three to four days to prepare since each person will have their own plates setting with chopsticks to enjoy these delicious dishes from the lacquered boxes. Nowadays, Osechi Ryori sets can be purchased at restaurants, grocery stores, and even at convenience stores like 7-Eleven.
On New Year’s morning, it is a customary to drink special sake or rice wine to purify the soul and ward off evil spirits. Another special meal for Japanese on this holiday is Ozoni, a soup made with vegetables, meat, seafood, and large pieces of mochi representing long life. Ozoni consumed on New Year will bring good luck. Each region of Japan makes their soup base a little differently (Matsumoto & Adarme, 2011). For instance, in Tokyo, people make the soup base from chicken broth seasoned with soy sauce. And for Kyoto style, it is made with white bean paste.
It is extremely important for the Japanese to celebrate the New Year with their family. Before midnight on New Year’s Eve, Buddhist temples carry out a ritual called Joya No Kane. In such, a bell is rung 107 times before midnight and the final ring is done on January 1st to welcome the New Year. The total of 108 rings symbolize expiring the 108 worldly sins from their lives, internally and externally, according to Buddhist beliefs (Knox, 2018). Most Japanese participate in hatsumōde to make the first prayer at the beginning of the year as it is customary to pay respect to a Buddha and one’s ancestor at a temple or shrine (Laninga, 2013). During the holiday, the Japanese would draw fortune slips called Omikuji, found at shrines and temples throughout the country, to determine what the New Year’s will bring (Wakai, 2006).
The Japanese have common societal practices done during the New Years, such as, children will receive Otoshidama (envelopes filled with money), similar to the Chinese New Year’s tradition of giving and receiving red envelopes from family members and elders. For the duration of New Year’s, numerous people will travel to stores in order to obtain mystery bags called fukubukuro (BBC News, 2019), containing goods sold at a discount price. This concept was invented in the Meiji period (1868-1912) and has been slowly reaching retail stores becoming a fun, meaningful part of the New Year’s celebratory practices. Kimonos are traditional Japanese garments worn on special occasions and New Year’s is no exception, it is not uncommon to see countless people decked out in their kimonos throughout this holiday festivity. On January 4th, people begin to return to their normal lives after the conclusion of the New Year celebrations.
Hina Matsuri (Girl’s Day)
On March 3rd of each year, Hina Matsuri, or Girl’s Day is a special day that celebrates young girls. The Japanese families display Hina doll sets and host parties to celebrate them and the young girls will receive prayers to bring them luck and happiness and health and growth.
According to the Japan Society (2019a), it was common for daughters of aristocratic families during the Heian period (794-1185) to play will dolls or Hina Ningyo, hina translates to small things and Ningyo means human shape. It was believed that these dolls could transfer illnesses and impurities from the children and keep them healthy. People began to keep dolls for display in their homes and soon by the Edo period all social class celebrated Girl’s Day by displaying Hani dolls in their home. The dolls are a special part of this holiday since they ward off evil spirits (Moss, 2002), from the Heian period, originated ancient purification ceremonies where people would send paper dolls, used to transfer bad luck and impurity from people, into the river and let the river carry them far away. This practice is still used today by some people in Japan.
Typically, the dolls are displayed on a tiered platform stand with seven levels with a red piece of fabric draped over. There are 15 dolls dressed in high court attire from the Heian period, located at the top level of the stand is the Emperor and Empress in a palace setting. The second step has the three ladies-in-waiting and the third step has five musicians. Below this step is two ministers and will also exhibit food that the families offer the dolls. The fifth step has two guards on each side of a peach blossom tree and an orange tree, with the peach tree blossom tree and orange tree symbolize the traditional perfect female qualities of gentleness. The sixth and the last step have miniature furniture, household goods, and a carriage. The doll sets are usually passed down generationally from mothers to daughters (Sosnoski, 2013) signifying the importance of
family in Japan. The doll set is set up a week before the festivity and is put away immediately at the end of Girl’s Day. The Japanese believe that if when a family is slow to put back the dolls, it will delay a girl’s future in marriage and that the entire doll set symbolizes the girl marrying into a noble family.
Universally like other holidays, food is an important aspect of this Girl’s Day. A sweet rice wine (non-alcoholic) called Shirozake is served at the parties and gathering. Colorful green, white and pink diamond-shaped rice cakes (hishi-mochi) and rice crackers are eaten on this holiday. The colors of the rice cakes are rice crackers represent the soft and feminine like cherry blossoms (McGowan, 2019). These foods are meant to bring good health to the young girls for the following year. Like New Year’s, dress is also significant to Girl’s Day and the girls will wear traditional kimonos at parties with friends and relatives.
Food & Nutrition
Rice has historically been the staple food for the Japanese, with its fundamental importance evident from the fact that the word for cooked rice, gohan and meshi, also means “a meal”. Japanese rice is short-grained and becomes sticky when cooked. Rice is served with other side dishes, which often includes vegetable, seafood, seaweed, meat, and soy products. The traditional cuisine of Japan consists of a large number of soy products (miso, tofu, natto – fermented soybean), and soy sauce for seasoning. Due to their abundant marine resources, Japanese will eat a lot of seafood, they often consume it raw (sushi or sashimi) or grilled, simmered, tempura deep-fried or vinaigrette, including seaweed.
Japanese eat more soy and fish than meat. Below are listed some of the most common dishes that are served with rice:
- grilled and pan-fried fish;
- stewed/simmered/cooked/boiled dishes, such as oden (fish cake), potato stew, beef or pork stew with vegetables;
- deep-fried dishes with tempura batter, such as tofu, vegetables, shrimp;
- sliced raw fish (sashimi);
- pickled/salted vegetables, such as ume (plum), ginger, soybean or seaweed;
- vinegared dishes, especially seaweed and cucumber;
- soup with miso-based or dashi-based.
Noodles are another staple food in Japan and will often substitute a rice-based meal. Soba (thin, grayish-brown noodles containing buckwheat flour) and udon (thick wheat noodles) are the main traditional noodles, while ramen is a modern import and now very popular. Noodles can be served hot or cold. There are no side dishes served with bowls of noodles, except for tempura which is served on the side or on top of the noodles. Cold noodles are served with a dipping sauce which consists of soy sauce, dashi, and mirin. The dipping sauce is a concentrated form of the soup broth but served cold.
The term, Ichiju-sansai (one soup, three dishes) points out what goes in a typical Japanese meal. A typical meal consists of a soup, a protein, a bowl of rice and a side of vegetables.
Traditional Japanese breakfast consists of rice, miso soup, grilled fish, natto (fermented soybean), tamago egg and pickled vegetables along with a piece of fruit. Japanese also adopted Western-style breakfast, incorporating egg and spam with toast and fruit in their breakfast. Women usually have lighter breakfast with fruit, yogurt or soymilk while men tend to eat a full course meal with rice and side dishes. These are some examples of what the Japanese eat for breakfast below (Miller, 2015).